‘Kingdom Hearts III’ review

A messy story can't take the charm out of the Disney-fied ‘Kingdom Hearts III’

Kingdom Hearts 3 oozes Disney charm and magic both in and outside of combat.
Kingdom Hearts 3 oozes Disney charm and magic both in and outside of combat.
Kingdom Hearts 3 oozes Disney charm and magic both in and outside of combat.

Highs

  • Beautiful Disney worlds
  • Attraction Flow summoning system
  • Earnest writing in each world
  • New Keyblades offer extremely varied combat
  • Epic boss battles

Lows

  • Gummi ship sequences are boring
  • The overarching story is a mess

When Sora, Donald, and Goofy first meet Rapunzel, the unassuming princess of Corona is being pulled in two different directions. One moment she’s swinging from a tree by her extraordinary blond hair, cheerfully screaming at the top of her lungs, and the next moment she’s scrunched on the ground, bawling into her hands. This happens on loop for a minute or so, these quick sways from joy to melancholy. All the while Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Flynn Rider look on, unsure of what to say.

It’s one of my favorite cutscenes in Kingdom Hearts III for numerous reasons: It’s funny, relatable, and expertly written. But Rapunzel’s mixed bag of emotions also sums up my feelings on Kingdom Hearts III, the long-awaited conclusion to the story arc that began 17 years ago.

Kingdom Hearts III is a pure joy in motion. The combat is flashy and varied, with plenty of customization options and some of the coolest moves I’ve used in an action RPG. The Disney worlds, from the familiar and epic Olympus to the winding streets of San Fransokyo, are filled with heartfelt storylines that unearth a sense of childlike wonder.

The overarching story that runs through these mostly charming worlds, however, is covered with darkness. If Sora alongside the other spiky-haired heroes and beloved Disney characters don’t fend off the shadowy Organization XIII, all of the light will be extinguished from the universe.

For me, Organization XIII and Keyblade masters saga presented a more literal threat to my feelings about Kingdom Hearts III. The long gap between Kingdom Hearts 2 and its sequel certainly didn’t help, but Kingdom Hearts had an absolutely ridiculous story far before Square Enix thought of using “2.8” in a title for one of its many filler games.

The seven worlds of Kingdom Hearts III are so much more bountiful and inspired than the ones seen in the PS2 titles.

11-year-old me was heavily invested in Sora’s first journey, so in some ways, the nonsensical direction of the series makes me feel despair like Rapunzel. Trying to keep up with and sort through the confusing tangents shown in Kingdom Hearts III’s many, many cutscenes was oftentimes headache-inducing.

Eventually, Rapunzel decided the promise of exploring the kingdom for the first time outweighed the fear of disappointing her mother. Similarly, I found that Kingdom Hearts III can be thoroughly enjoyed outside of the series’ baggage, as if I were experiencing Sora’s adventure for the very first time once again.

Worlds of wonder

 The allure and magic of the Kingdom Hearts series has always stemmed from the Disney worlds that Sora, Donald, and Goofy explore as part of the larger narrative. Inside these worlds, separate stories gain life, starring popular Disney characters that become fast friends with our hero. Kingdom Hearts III is no different, as it features seven spacious worlds inspired by beloved Disney properties.

Kingdom Hearts III Review

Though there are fewer Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts III than in both of its mainline predecessors, they are much more bountiful and inspired than the ones seen in the PS2 titles. This is partly due to increased processing power that has significantly improved the visuals of the worlds and characters alike. Woody, Sully, Rapunzel, and Elsa look just as they are in the movies they originally appeared in, and these adapted versions of their worlds feel alive with finer details due to the drastic visual upgrades.

KH3’s five new worlds prove that Square Enix could keep mining Kingdom Hearts for decades to come — provided Disney and Pixar keep pumping out their polished and heartwarming animated flicks. The storylines are largely new, but the character struggles are familiar enough to instantly connect with what they’re going through.

Kingdom Hearts III manages to retain a virtually identical control scheme and mechanical approach to the originals without feeling dated.

For instance, Sully and Mike want to keep Boo safe from Randall in the Monsters Inc. world, and the toys of Toy Story are once again separated from Andy. The addition of the Heartless and the looming Organization XIII spins these familiar tales into something new, allowing you to see new sides of these Disney characters’ when up against perhaps their greatest challenge yet. Each story is so well-written that they mostly stand on their own while retaining common themes of camaraderie and perseverance.

The adventure kicks off in Olympus, one of two worlds Sora has already visited. Despite the fact that the world of Greek gods and their many spawn has already been a part of Kingdom Hearts history, the Olympus created here — with its vast openness and authentic architecture — feels completely new.

This freshness extends to the Pirates of the Caribbean world, which takes place on the high seas with Assassin’s Creed-style naval combat, as well as on the shores of a bustling port city and underwater. The variety of tasks to complete and the nuances of each place you visit is what ultimately makes each of these Disney worlds a standout experience.

In the snow-covered slopes of Arendelle, Elsa grapples with her powers in a storyline that ends up fitting remarkably well within the overarching forces at play. Sora rides Baymax around in key combat sequences inside the large, secret-filled world of San Fransokyo (Big Hero 6). An almost sickeningly sweet tale of friendship and love between toys unfolds in a shopping mall, one that sees Sora jump into the driver’s seat of one of the hottest new toy robots on the market. And the Kingdom of Corona has equal parts lush green forests and beautiful vistas. It even throws in a charming dancing mini game in the town square.

At its core, Kingdom Hearts has always been about the power of love and friendship. When Woody lifts up his boot to see “Andy” written in faded marker, it works as more than just a nod to an iconic moment in Toy Story history by connecting thematically to Sora’s own plight with loss and the power of everlasting friendship. Just like watching and listening to Elsa belt “Let it Go” at the top of her lungs (despite how much I dislike the song) felt oddly perfect for the tone of Kingdom Hearts III. More than ever, the charming sweetness of Kingdom Hearts shines through.

A theme park of ideas 

Combat-wise, Kingdom Hearts III does a stellar balancing act. It manages to retain a virtually identical control scheme and mechanical approach to the PS2 original without feeling dated. The strides the series has made to it’s combat system over the years have been largely incremental, but Square Enix has succeeded in matching it with the unbridled delight and magic of the surrounding set pieces and characters.

Kingdom Hearts III Review
The Attraction Flow system sees Sora summon theme park rides (like the swinging pirate ship above) as a combat summons and feature unique move-sets and abilities.

In a truly magical addition, Sora can summon special attacks inspired by Disney theme park rides. Called Attraction Flow, when in battle you often see prompts for summons such as Blaster Blaze or Mad Tea Cups. Blaster Blaze summons a circular cart just like the ones from a ride in Disney World called Toy Story Midway Mania!, and for the next thirty-ish seconds, you blast enemies with colorful energy balls. In Mad Tea Cups, Sora and his pals spin around striking enemies in quick succession — with the added bonus of not getting sick in the process.

There’s also a water rafting ride, a swinging pirate ship, and a carousel. Each Attraction Flow summon is a mini game in itself that relies on good timing to rack up high scores and take out as many Heartless as possible. It’s not just an occasional move either; I racked up Attraction Flow summons every couple of minutes while in combat, and sometimes chained multiple flows together in quick succession.

The core combat feels closest to Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, with an emphasis on fast traversal and chaining attacks while airborne.

The glitzy combat extends to Sora’s Keyblade attacks. With each world you clear, you’ll earn a new Keyblade with up to two unique form changes. Some Keyblades transform into dual pistols when you land enough attacks to trigger the devastating moves. My favorite Keyblade, fittingly named Favorite Deputy, hailed from the Toy Box. Designed like a cactus with Woody’s sheriff’s hat adorning the top and a three-eyed alien keychain hanging from the handle, Favorite Deputy can transform into the Hyper Hammer, a massive toy hammer that lets Sora somersault through the air and smack enemies into the ground.

Its other form, Drill Punch, is equally satisfying and fairly self-explanatory. Sora can equip three Keyblades at a time, which you can easily cycle through in combat. There’s even a series of neat summons that bring other Disney characters such as Ralph from Wreck-It Ralph into the mix, each of which is accompanied by a delightful animation and satisfying degree of destruction.

The core combat feels closest to Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance, with an emphasis on fast traversal and chaining attacks while airborne. With more offensive moves at your disposal than ever before, you can tackle each of the world’s big bosses in a variety of ways. Sometimes a magic-focused Keyblade works best, and other times you want to get in the thick of it and pulverize giant Heartless monstrosities from up close.

Speaking of bosses, while many of them merely look like massive beings of darkness with no real identifiable personality, each has a different move set so that no two battles feel exactly the same. Even during the lengthy boss rush in the final few hours of the game, the baddies managed to have new tricks up their sleeves, forcing me to dig deeper into Sora’s seemingly endless bag of Keyblade tricks.

It’s hard to say if Kingdom Hearts III holds an meaningful conclusion for hardcore fans of the series.

While the combat scenarios in each world are still fairly predictable — enter a new area, Heartless surface, defeat the Heartless — the Heartless shift forms and abilities to match the world, just like Sora, Donald, and Goofy.

The combat in each Disney World and beyond offers a constantly exciting and satisfying experience, but the gap between each world gums up the works a bit. Yes, I’m talking about the Gummi Ship, which makes an unceremonious return. Space combat is still rather boring, but besides a few mandatory battles, you can mostly avoid partaking in any of it. It only takes a few minutes to get to your destination, so the lull in excitement doesn’t last long.

Organization whatever

As for the time-bending, black cloak-wearing elephant in the room, Organization XIII, it’s hard to say if Kingdom Hearts III holds an meaningful conclusion for hardcore fans of the series. This is because the Kingdom Hearts story is overwrought nonsense that would’ve been much better had it simply leaned into a standard battle between good and evil seen in the Disney worlds living inside of the franchise.

Kingdom Hearts III review

Though Kingdom Hearts III tries its best to remind you of past events, you quickly realize that the need for further explanation isn’t due to the large gap between mainline entries, but because of the sheer absurdity of the plot itself. While it aims to tie up loose ends, it really feels like an attempt to place scraps of crinkled duct tape on the series’ glaring plot holes. With its abundance of cinematics, I found myself annoyed with the self-indulgent plot and myriad of sub-plots that ultimately distract from the engaging Disney stories that run through each world. Some nefarious characters that show feel inconsequential, needlessly adding more threads into an already tangled plot.

But then I’d enter a new Disney world, meet familiar faces as our brave hero Sora for the first time, and try out my new Keyblade against swarms of enemies. And it’s that loop, the true heart of Kingdom Hearts III, that has never failed to bring a smile to my face.

DT Gameplay

Our Take

Kingdom Hearts III plays similarly to its PS2 predecessors while bringing new elements to the gameplay that make it feel incredibly modern. Each of the seven Disney worlds bring a truly magical experience, and the combat underlines this thanks to the addition of some new, truly spectacular moves. The convoluted overarching story sometimes gets in the way of the wonder and charm, but ultimately, KH3 has enough heart to keep you coming back for more.

Is there a better alternative?

There’s nothing quite like Kingdom Hearts, and Kingdom Hearts III is the best entry in the series.

How long will it last?

I finished the story in 28 hours. Scouring the world for all of the treasure could easily double that time.

Should you buy it?

Yes, if you’re a Kingdom Hearts fan, you should buy it. It’s hard to recommend if you haven’t at least played the other two mainline entries, though.

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